At 90, Marla Gibbs Looks Back on Career as a Sitcom Queen — “My Romance With the People Is That I’m One of Them”

The TV legend reflects on her groundbreaking career, the secret to her peerless comedic timing and why she didn’t quit her job at United Airlines until season three of ‘The Jeffersons.’

Marla Gibbs has a motto: “It’s never too late.” And she would know. The beloved actress — whose way with a zinger influenced a generation of funny people, from Wanda Sykes to Tyler Perry — was 44 when, recently relocated from Detroit to L.A., divorced and with very few credits to her name, she auditioned for a new CBS sitcom from Norman Lear called The Jeffersons, a spin­off of Lear’s smash hit All in the Family.

The role, which she landed, was Florence Johnston, a housekeeper to a successful Black family living on New York’s Upper East Side. Gibbs’ acid delivery of Lear and company’s whip-sharp and socially progressive dialogue — and her character’s ongoing rivalry with the man of the house, George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley, who died in 2012 at 74) — made her one of TV’s most popular and dependable belly-laugh generators.
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Gibbs was Emmy-nominated five times for the role of Florence but never won. She went on to star in and produce another beloved sitcom, NBC’s 227, which ran from 1985 to 1990 and introduced the world to the talents of Regina King and Jackée Harry. Now 90, and with dozens of film and TV appearances under her belt, Gibbs is still working — since 2021, she’s been a regular on Days of Our Lives. She sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to look back on a groundbreaking half-century career.

What brought you out to Hollywood?

I moved to California in 1969 from Detroit, Michigan. I had moved to Detroit from Chicago, so my three children were all born in Detroit. But I’m a Chicagoan. My sister lived here, and she was begging me to come out here for the longest time. I was running from my husband. I was done. He followed me out here six months later. And I gave him another shot, but it didn’t change anything. So then there was a divorce.

Were you even thinking about acting at the time?

I always wanted to be [an actor] because I was a film addict: Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Joan Caulfield, Joan Fontaine. I had a lot of sheroes.

Were there any African American actresses whom you looked up to?

[Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner star] Beah Richards. She later played my mom on 227.

What were you doing for work in Detroit?

I was working in reservations for United Airlines. So I transferred out here with my three kids. And, of course, we had free flights. I was able to ship my things and everything via United. It was pretty easy. I was there 11 years when I got to The Jeffersons. And then I stayed for two more years.

Wait. During the first two seasons of The Jeffersons, you were still working at United Airlines?

I was. At that time, we were shooting Jeffersons at KTTV. So I would get on the freeway, come up at Wilshire, turn right, go to the parking lot and sit at my desk: “Good afternoon, this is Ms. Gibbs. How may I help you?”

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“We didn’t call it comedy. … it was just funny things they said in the neighborhood,” Gibbs says of how she delivered punchlines on The Jeffersons. PHOTOGRAPHED BY MICHAEL BUCKNER
I have to ask: You were on a network sitcom — why keep your old job?

“Network” and “sitcom” didn’t mean anything to me then. I’m at a job over 10 years. Why give it all up for something new? What if it don’t last? A bird in the hand is worth 20 in the bush. I said to United, “Well, why don’t you let me work an hour later?” Because I was worried about being late if we ran over while taping the show. One day, Bernie West, one of The Jeffersons’ producers, said, “Do you still have that job?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Aren’t you tired?” I said, “No.” He said, “Would you take a leave?” I said, “If you pay me.” So I took a 90-day leave from United. After that, I thought, “I might as well give this a shot.” I was never sorry.

Did your co-workers at United see you on TV?

Yeah. They wondered what the hell I was still doing there.

Going backward a bit, when you got to L.A. in 1969, did you just think to yourself, “I think I’ll give acting a try”?

Yeah. “I’m out here where it happens.” I was very disappointed when I got to Sunset Boulevard. I always thought Hollywood was behind some gates. I said, “This is Sunset Boulevard?” And then when I got to Hollywood Boulevard: “This is Hollywood?” It really was a shock.

But you didn’t stop. You wanted to get your piece of the Hollywood dream.

Well, my sister was what they called an extra,

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